Your core stability and strength is essential for maintaining a healthy posture, flatter abdomen and a strong back. Follow these 3 simple steps to tap into your core potential!
Common Symptoms - Pelvic instability and pain including the sacro-iliac and pubic symphysis - Post-pregnancy abdominal weakness and symphysis pubis dysfunction
- Digestive disruptions including constipation
- Distended lower abdominals - Paradoxical breathing (through the chest and neck) - Low back instability, tension and pain
- Lumbar disc bulge or herniation
- Numbness and tingling down the legs
Anatomy of the Rectus Abdominis
The rectus abdominis is comprised of 8 segments which collectively form the entire muscle. By correctly stabilizing your torso, it is possible to have the upper portion behave in more of a 'holding' pattern whilst you are actively working the lower abdominals. This can also be reversed, so the lower abdominals stabilize the pelvis whilst you work the upper abdominals. Similarly, with the right choice of exercise you can fully engage the entire rectus abdominis.
It originates from the crest of the pubic bone and inserts to the cartilage of the 5th, 6th and 7th ribs, as well as the base of the sternum (xiphoid process). It functions to compress the abdomen and flex the spine. It also serves collectively with the pelvic floor muscles and spinal muscles to stabilize the trunk during movement. The bigger and more the intense the movement, the more critical the strength and stability of the core becomes.
For women who have had children it is essential to have the linea alba (a tendon between each side of the rectus abdominis) assessed. Commonly, the linea alba can expand during pregnancy and create a gap between each side of the abdominal wall. This is a precursor for core, spine and pelvic instability, and should be evaluated and suitably rehabilitated before proceeding to more advanced core exercises such as the later stages of today's exercise choice.
Step 1 - Test It
(1) Breathing Take 10 breathes and observe what happens physically as you take each breathe. Notice if your shoulders rise, your ribcage fully expands and your belly has little to no movement. This is typically the case. The goal here is to begin to notice if you are breathing in a reverse fashion.
Ideally, at rest, your breathing should be almost exclusively within your abdomen. The greatest examples of this style breathing can be seen in babies, toddlers and children up until the age of 14. Around that age, we start to become more conscious of our bodies, and start to keep the abdomen more flexed, meaning we restrict our engagement of the deep abdominals, namely the transversus abdominis and the diaphragm.
(2) Lower Abdominal Coordination
The next step is to test your ability to recruit the lower abdominal muscle and minimize the engagement of the hip flexors, primarily the psoas, which are typically dominant in this movement. Follow along with my video below to perform this test. You can perform this immediately, and pay very close attention to the amount of pressure between your lower back and the ground. As you lower your legs, if you feel as though you are continuing to lose pressure this would be a positive test, and your metric for current coordination and strength.
Ideally, I recommend to test more accurately using a pressure cuff (the one I use in the video is available here: Chattanooga stabilizer pressure biofeedback)
If you get a positive test for coordination, you do not need to perform test (3) for strength, as this would automatically be a positive test also.
If you test negative, meaning you can sustain a level of pressure as you lower the legs, then proceed to test (3).
(3) Lower Abdominal Strength
For this last test you are gaining a metric for your current lower abdominal strength. This should only be performed if you got a negative test for test (2).
Essentially, the goal is to perform this exercise with both legs vertical. If you cannot sustain a level of pressure between the lower back and the ground, no matter how far your legs have travelled, as soon as you feel this pressure start to reduce, that's your end range for now. Once again, this test is best when performed with the pressure cuff, as illustrated in the video. It is the most accurate feedback tool for this test and performing the exercise.
You can then continue to watch the video, and use any of the levels from 1-8 to test and determine which level you need to begin with so you can perform this exercise efficiently and effectively to be able to sustain the pressure between the lower and the ground.,
VERY IMPORTANT - The Psoas! I'll be reviewing this muscle in a future article but for now please understand, that if your lower back is lifting off the ground (cuff pressure is reducing) then this is a sign of hypertonicity to the psoas and hip flexor muscles. As soon as you pass a threshold point where your lower abdominals are unable to maintain this pressure the hip flexors begin to take over, especially the psoas, and in turn this creates a huge leverage force on the lumbar spine. Essentially this causes an extension in the lumbar spine coupled with an anterior tilt of the pelvis, meaning the lower back loses pressure from the ground and the pressure on the cuff goes down. By learning to activate the lower abdominal muscles, you can overcome this hip flexor dominance and learn to stabilize the pelvis and spine. Oh - and flatten your abdominals of course!
Step 2 - Charge It
I've talked more extensively about this concept in a previous article available here:
Flat Abs & Strong Back Hack
This is my chosen method, taught to me through the CHEK Institute, to help PROTECT your spine and pelvis and RECRUIT all your core muscles collectively to help DISSIPATE the load that you are having to deal with.
The easiest example is bending over to pick something light off the floor. Here are the simple steps to follow: 1. Take a deep diaphragmatic breath and allow the transversus abdominis to expand.
2. Hold the breathe and now draw your belly button inward toward your spine, flattening your abdomen as much as you can without engaging your rectus abdominis muscle. The flattening happens due to the engagement of the transversus abdominis muscle. Here you can also squeeze the pelvic floor muscles.
3. Keeping your breathe held, and belly button drawn inward, bend over to pick up the item.
4. As you extend to an upright position, slowly release the held breathe through pursed lips.
By following these simple 4 steps, you effectively just created what is known as a non-compressible cylinder. This protects the spine and helps you to recruit the core muscles in a correct sequence. The most important consideration is keeping this engagement (belly flat) continually as you perform today's exercise.
Step 3 - Move It
In my video below, I teach you how to perform test (2) and (3) along with a variation of methods to progress with this exercise. My best advice is start at the lowest level and take your time to progress with the levels. If you lose that pressure between the lower back and the ground then perform a few reps to see if you can wrap your brain and muscle around the corrective. If not, simply move back down a level before rushing ahead. By steam rolling through the levels, there is a strong chance you'll end up back where you started - with a distended lower abdomen, weak core and unstable spine.
Patience is definitely required for this exercise and the results!
My prescription is to perform this exercise when you have time to concentrate and practice without interruption. Ultimately, as I talk about in my book The 15-Step Playbook for Pain Relief, this exercise will help pay down your postural debt due to overuse of some muscles and inactivation of others.
Remember intensity is the shortcut to results.
In this case, the intensity comes from the frequency of repetitions and the level of which you select to perform. DO NOT RUSH the progression of this exercise. Mastery is key. I recommend to perform the tests outlined above every 1-2 weeks to gauge your progression. Do not progress in levels until you can perform each level for 10-15 repetitions whilst maintaining 40-mmHg on your pressure cuff.
I suggest the following:
MAJOR SYMPTOMS - Rehearse this exercise 3+ times per day.
MINOR SYMPTOMS - Rehearse this exercise once per day.
NO SYMPTOMS - Test yourself and then begin mastery of this exercise by rehearsing 3 times per week.
The Whole Program - Restoring Balance in 5-Steps
Move - increase your body temperature and blood flow to all your muscles.
Massage- using a partner, lacrosse ball or foam roller to agitate the muscles.
Mobilize - move the joints in their full range of motion.
STRETCH - focus on lengthening the short-tight (hypertonic) muscles.
Strengthen - focus on strengthening the (hypotonic) long-weak muscles.
Once again, here are my related blog posts that you'll enjoy reading:
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